May 26th 1913. The grand day when England saw the birth of one of her greatest acting talents – the legendary Peter Cushing, a true national treasure.
Today the film world celebrates his centenary year and whilst he is sadly no longer with us to share in this anniversary, film fans the world over will still pay tribute to one of not only horror’s finest actors but one of cinema’s greatest actors too. I assume that everyone visiting Popcorn Pictures will know who he was and will have seen at least one film that he starred in (Star Wars most likely tops the list for non-horror buffs). Therefore you’ll know that Cushing was a very talented actor.
Renowned the world over for his horror performances, perhaps this is why Cushing has always been greatly underappreciated outside of the genre. Ask film fans who the greatest British actor of all time is and they’d no doubt rattle off a list with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins and so on being first off the tongue. And whilst they may have garnered the critical acclaim and collected the awards to back up their pedigree, if anyone ever asked me then the first name from my lips would be Peter Cushing. Why? Watch him in any of his roles and dare to tell me that he didn’t give anything less than 100% by bringing to life his character with an array of acting talent that would leave many Oscar winners blush with embarrassment.
Cushing was typecast in the horror genre, a situation that his best friend and fellow cinematic legend Christopher Lee has been keen to avoid (with much success). If it wasn’t mad scientists, it was talented scholars, vampire hunters or religious zealots – Cushing had the monopoly on all of them. Though he starred in his fair share of turkeys (The Blood Beast Terror springs to mind), there is no question that Cushing never phoned in a performance. He had an uncanny ability to immediately raise the quality of a production just by starring in it. Bringing integrity, intelligence and a hidden enthusiasm into every role he played, Cushing performed above and beyond the call of duty, on many occasions when the material on show was in no way worthy of his time and effort. Only he could give credibility to the bone-slurping silicate monsters in Island of Terror or the white hot aliens in Night of the Big Heat. Because Cushing was the man playing the scientists who explained what was going on in many of these horror films, the nonsensical jargon actually became plausible and believable. That wasn’t down the script but to the delivery.
Cushing’s big break in horror came with Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, a landmark film which irreversibly changed the genre film and in which Cushing played Mary Shelley’s infamous Frankenstein character. Between that and Hammer’s Dracula, in which Cushing assumed his other most famous horror role as Van Helsing, he would have cemented his legacy in the horror genre forever by playing two iconic literature characters on the big screen. Rightly so, these two roles dominate his career (he would play Frankenstein six times, Van Helsing on five occasions) as they are some of the meatiest he played. I much prefer him as Frankenstein though, with the films gradually showing a progression of character from mild-mannered-but-deluded in the first one to being completely bonkers in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.
He went on to star in countless low budget horror films over the years, many more with Hammer as well as some horror anthology films for Amicus. Cushing famously said “Who wants to see me as Hamlet? Very few. But millions want to see me as Frankenstein so that’s the one I do.” He knew what his fan base expected of him and, unlike other actors who did their own thing, Cushing felt obliged to pay back his fans by sticking to the traditional roles that had garnered him such popularity in the first place. It worked. If someone were to ask a seasoned horror fan who the biggest genre stars are of all time then Cushing would be up there alongside Lee, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Influential. Inspirational. Iconic. Just a few words to share between such good company.
Let’s not forget Cushing’s two turns as mysterious Time Lord The Doctor in Dr Who and the Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD. Though not considered canon as part of the long-running TV series, Cushing’s doddery Doctor showed that he could appeal to a younger audience. And he wasn’t adverse to comedy either as his recurring guest appearances on the Morecambe and Wise show in the UK showed. He could also do adventure as he did in She. He was a man of many talents but it’s with his horror work that he will be forever fondly remembered.
Sadly, his wife Helen died in 1971 and he never really recovered. He withdrew from filming Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb and stated after her death that he felt like he was just killing time before they would meet again (i.e. his death). It was a tragic thing to say but Cushing had been dealt a terrible blow and couldn’t see how his life would ever be the same again. It wouldn’t.
When he did eventually return to making films at the behest of Christopher Lee, Cushing had visibly aged. But that didn’t mean to say his performances were any less than impeccable. In fact in some tragic twist, his performances seemed to get better, with his older characters appearing to nurse inner pain and trauma which reflected that of the actor. However with the horror genre on the downward turn, Cushing found his niche gradually getting smaller. And as we know in today’s market, the world of filmmaking is rarely kind to the older generation.
Fittingly, one of his later big screen roles proved to be one of, if not the most, famous – that of Imperial bad ass Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars. George Lucas knew exactly what he was dong when he cast Cushing as the main antagonist. His ice-cold, ruthless performance as the brutally efficient Tarkin completely overshadows Darth Vader’s debut, bossing him around like a dog and laughing in the face of Princess Leia as he orders the destruction of her planet. Though he’s not on screen a lot, Cushing’s performance when he is on screen reminded everyone of just how good of an actor he truly was, winning over a new legion of younger fans in the process.
It’s ironic that despite his reputation for horror films and playing evil mad scientists, Cushing was known to be a lovely, charming man in real life – the archetypical English gent. Videos on Youtube of him on numerous UK chat shows (particularly the few of him on Wogan) pay testament to the man. He came off as someone you could listen to all day, a warm, polite and humble man who never really ‘got’ his fame. Watch the videos and tell me you don’t like the guy. He was impossible not to like. In showing the world who he really was, it made his performances as Frankenstein or Van Helsing even more remarkable. This was a man who could ‘turn on’ the evil at the drop of the hat. The much-publicised fact about Cushing wearing slippers whilst shooting Star Wars (because the boots hurt his feet too much) is just the perfect example to end on. On one hand you had a brutally-efficient militaristic performance from Cushing as the galaxy’s most feared man and on the other hand, the kindly old gentlemen who politely asked Lucas if he could wear his slippers.
Peter Cushing may have died nineteen years ago in 1994 but the popularity of his films has never been stronger, with Hammer gradually releasing its horror back catalogue on blu-ray and introducing today’s audiences to one of the last great iconic actors of the horror genre. It’s a fitting tribute to one of England’s finest and most underappreciated actors that he is even more loved today than he was in his prime, as legions of fans introduce the next generation of horror lovers to his talent. Cushing may have left us in 1994 but his legacy will live on for the next one hundred years - a fitting testament to this amazing actor and outstanding man.